99 Poems: New & Selected
Graywolf Press, 2016
208 pp., 24.0
Teaching Us the Names
I like the drill—
Poverty, Chastity, and Growing Grapes.
The archbishop calls my port a miracle.
Don't tell His Grace, but I still doubt there is
an afterlife. That's not why I stay there.
This is the life I didn't want to waste.
His commits himself to monastic life not to gain a heavenly reward but to live his earthly life more fully. Like the port he makes, his life gains richness and flavor as it ferments within the limits of these vows. And the assonance of "Grapes," "Grace," "stay," and "waste" causes the vowels to roll like full-bodied wine over the reader's tongue as the poem draws to a close.
The ghost in "Haunted" provokes the narrator to lead a more rooted life, and the ghostly voices in "A California Requiem" mourn the damage caused by their failure to do so. Gioia imagines walking through a cemetery and hearing earlier settlers of California speak to him from their graves: "Become the voice of our forgotten places. / Teach us the names of what we have destroyed." Without these names, they cannot seek absolution for their crimes: "We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth / For killing what we cannot even name." Words make our minds articulate and thus responsible to a complex reality, whereas displaced desire remains abstract and fails to cultivate the particularizing language of care.
Poetry, by attending to the intimate particulars of the people and places we love, can teach us to name and value them properly. One of the last poems in this volume, "The Apple Orchard," remembers a romantic stroll one spring afternoon. The narrator ponders what would have happened if he had reached out to his partner, yet now he will never know:
What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that is the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost.
Wanting everything, he got nothing. Gioia, in a talk titled "Sense of Place," quotes this poem, concluding that "what we will not grasp, what we will not protect in the world around us, will be lost." As long as we covet the feeling of being in love more than we desire the good of the beloved, we will fail to name or care responsibly.
Responsibility and fidelity do not prevent loss, but they deepen love so that we experience loss not as a lonely, haunting "might-have-been," but as the ripeness and culmination of intimacy. As the final poem in this volume, "Marriage of Many Years," concludes,
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.
Placing these poems so close together highlights the tension between their concluding lines and suggests that fidelity to a person or a place enables one to relinquish, to live and lose well. Without such fidelity, desire haunts us with "what-ifs that won't stay buried," but marriage enables us to cherish the beloved we know will be lost.
Gioia's countercultural commitment to making art that orders and roots our restless desires likely flows from his Catholic faith. He argued for the renewal of Catholic art in a widely-read essay published by First Things, and in a recent interview he confided that "art without a metaphysical dimension still feels diminished to me." Gioia's assessment of Richard Wilbur seems to apply equally well to his own poetry: "Although Christianity provides the central vision of his work, he has written little devotional verse—overtly pious poetry, that is, that tries to replicate the act of worship. Instead, Wilbur characteristically uses the images, ideas, and ceremonies of the Christian faith to provide perspective on the secular world." This is precisely what Gioia's poetry does as it probes and critiques the frenetic restlessness of modern desire.
In one of his more explicitly religious poems, "God Only Knows," Gioia speculates that perhaps "Bach's greatest work / was just an improvised / accompaniment" that "stopped the burghers / squirming in their pews," causing them to see a sky full of "angels / holding ledgers / for a roll call of the damned." Terrified that they would hear their names read from this roll, these suddenly-attentive burghers "sung / to save their souls." Like Bach's music, Gioia's poetry is sublime enough to hold the attention of even the most distractible readers. And once he has their attention, he teaches them to name and care for their places, their neighbors, and their eternal souls.
Jeffrey Bilbro is assistant professor of English at Spring Arbor University. His book Loving God's Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature was published in 2015 by University of Alabama Press.
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